On the Radio- Biodiversity may reduce asthma


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A look at New Zealand’s unique flora. (Tatiana G/flickr)

Eden DeWald | July 23, 2018

This week’s segment details a study that found a correlation in asthma reduction and a biodiverse environment.

Transcript:

Biodiverse living spaces can have a positive affect on your child’s health

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

A new study by the USDA Forest Service found that children who lived in areas with more plant biomass or more biodiversity were less likely to develop asthma. Plant biomass refers to the total percentage of plant life, where plant biodiversity refers to the different types of plant life in an area. The Forest Service collaborated with Massey University in New Zealand to track 50,000 children’s health condition using the country’s comprehensive data base that compiles health information data from most New Zealand citizens.

The study concluded that areas with more plant biomass lessened the risk of developing asthma by six percent while areas with more plant biodiversity reduced the risk of developing asthma by seven percent. In 2015, one in twelve Iowans suffered from asthma. The Forest Service study demonstrates the value of a green environment to our health.

For more information, visit iowa-environmental-focus-dot-org.

From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Sara E. Mason.

Smog-producing air pollution declining more slowly


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Catalytic converters have decreased the amount of carbon monoxide emitted by cars dramatically since they were first introduced in the 1970s. (Chris Keating/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | May 1, 2018

A new study found that levels of two primary pollutants in the U.S. atmosphere have not been declining as rapidly during recent years as they once were.

Researchers at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) studied satellite data and ground level measurements of two smog-forming pollutants: nitrogen oxides and carbon monoxide. Levels of these air pollutants decreased dramatically following the implementation of the Clean Air Act in the 1970s. Requirements of that act pushed automakers and energy-producers to develop new technology which curbed the emissions of these two pollutants.

The study found that concentration of these two pollutants in the atmosphere decreased by seven percent each year between 2005 and 2009. However, from 2011 through 2015, the pollutants’ levels only shrunk by 1.7 percent annually.

Helen Worden is a scientist at NCAR and one of the study’s authors. She said to Phys Org, “Although our air is healthier than it used to be in the 80s and 90s, air quality in the U.S. is not progressing as quickly as we thought. The gains are starting to slow down.”

The study noted that the slower decrease in carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides was especially severe in the eastern part of the U.S. This finding dispels notions that the slower pace can be attributed to traveling air pollution from countries like China. The positive news is that the slower decline in carbon monoxide, which is primarily emitted by vehicles, is likely due to the fact that major strides have already been made to reduce vehicle emissions. In short, clean air technology related to cars may have reached a kind of plateau.

This study was funded by NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the University of Colorado Boulder, and the National Science Foundation. The full journal article can be found in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Scientists question EPA’s rollback of hazardous pollution regulation


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It is estimated that 9 of the 12 major sources of pollution in Iowa’s third congressional district will be reclassified under the EPA’s latest rollback. (Bill Dickinson/flickr)

Jenna Ladd | April 26, 2018

Scientists are concerned about the human and environmental health impacts of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recent decision to loosen regulations on toxic air pollutants.

The Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 (CAAA) require major sources of hazardous air pollutants (HAP), or those pollutants suspected or known to cause cancer or other serious health effects, to use evidence-based pollution-control technologies to keep pollution below federal limits. These evidence-based pollution control technologies are also known as maximum achievable control technologies (MACT). Major sources are defined by the EPA as those facilities that emit more than 10 tons of any one HAP per year or more than 25 tons of a combination of HAP per year. Since then, the EPA has enforced the “once in, always in” policy, meaning that those sources that were regulated by the administration as “major sources,” would always be regulated by the administration under that classification. Until now.

In late January, Scott Pruitt’s EPA rolled back the “once in, always in” policy, thereby allowing major sources to become reclassified as “area source” polluters if they can show that they are emitting toxic air pollutants below the program’s threshold. If these sources are successfully reclassified, they will not be required to use MACT, which will likely make their emission reduction efforts less successful. To boot, hazardous air pollutants regulated by MACT measures include formaldehyde, chlorine and hydrochloric acid, none of which are safe for human inhalation, even in very small amounts.

The Union of Concerned Scientists, an independent research organization, created an interactive map to help U.S. citizens predict which parts of the country are most likely to be adversely impacted by the policy change. Scientists estimate that a minimum of 21 states will see more hazardous air pollution following the change. Low-income areas and communities of color are likely to suffer the most as a result. Their research predicts that 35 out of 41 facilities in Chicago could increase HAP emissions. Health effects associated with HAP emissions include cancer and respiratory illness, among others.

Gretchen Goldman is research director of the Center for Science and Democracy with the Union of Concerned Scientists. She made a statement on the organization’s webpage, “The EPA’s political leadership are ditching a successful policy and exposing more Americans to hazardous pollution.”

Users can view the likelihood that this policy change will affect air quality in their region using the interactive map provided here.

Carbon emissions on the rise after years of stagnation


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Carbon emissions increased in 2017 for the first time in years. (Sunny Vhaii/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | March 22, 2018

Global carbon emissions were higher than ever in 2017 according to Global Energy and CO2 Status Report from the International Energy Agency (IEA) based in Paris.

Carbon emissions reached a record 32.5 giggatons last year after remaining stable for the three previous years. This figure can be thought of as putting 170 million additional cars on the road. The spike in carbon emissions has been attributed to two factors. First, global energy demand increased by 2.1 percent last year. This is double the average 0.9 percent increase over the previous five years. About seventy percent of this demand was met by emission producing fossil fuels like oil, natural gas and coal. Second, energy efficiency improvements slowed down during 2017.

“The significant growth in global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions in 2017 tells us that current efforts to combat climate change are far from sufficient,” Fatih Birol, IEA’s executive director, said to Reuters. He continued, “For example, there has been a dramatic slowdown in the rate of improvement in global energy efficiency as policy makers have put less focus in this area.”

Scientists say the carbon emissions need to peak soon and then decrease dramatically by 2020 in order to meet the international climate goal of keep average global temperature rise lower than 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels.

Although carbon emissions increased most places, the United States, United Kingdom, Mexico and Japan all saw reductions in carbon emissions. Surprisingly, U.S. carbon emissions fell by 0.5 percent, more than any other country.

German court gives cities authority to ban diesel vehicles


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Munich is one of the German cities that routinely exceeds European Union NOx emission limits. (Vladimer Shioshvili/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | March 1, 2017

Germany’s federal court ruled on Tuesday that cities can ban diesel vehicles in order to lower air pollution.

Environmental Action Germany has been filing lawsuits against cities for years to encourage municipalities to implement policies that curb air pollution. German government statistics reveal that some 6,000 people die each year from nitrogen oxide pollution, 60 percent of which comes from vehicles on the road. Diesel engines in particular spew more NOx than gasoline engines and are more popular in Europe.

The ruling does not require communities to ban diesel driving, rather it grants them the legal authority to do so if air pollution in their city remains above the European Union limit for NOx in the air. Seventy German cities surpassed that threshold at least once last year.

Banning diesel vehicles would have negative implications for the country’s automotive industry. Since the ruling, the German government has proposed some measures to decrease pollution and avoid the ban, which include providing free public transportation and refitting existing diesel vehicles to meet clean air standards. However, it is unclear how the government would pay for such measures.

Germany is merely the latest country making a move away from diesel engines. Paris, Madrid, Mexico City and Athens have policies in place to ban diesel vehicles from city centers before 2025.

Coal plants closing at unprecedented rate


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A coal plant spews pollutants on the Navajo reservation near Page, Arizona. (Photo Kent/flickr)

Jenna Ladd | February 2, 2018

Coal’s role in the U.S. energy picture is rapidly shrinking according to a report from the independent, non-profit Union of Concerned Scientists.

From 2008 to 2016, the portion of the U.S.’s energy derived from coal decreased from 51 percent to 31 percent. Of those coal units that are still up and running, about 25 percent of them plan to retire or switch to another energy source soon. While some coal units are retiring completely, many of them are switching to natural gas. Either way, the report found that the decreased coal production has provided the following environmental health benefits:

  • 80 percent less sulfur dioxide, a source of acid rain
  • 64 percent less nitrogen oxide, a key component in smog
  • 34 percent less carbon dioxide, a heat-trapping gas

Scientists estimate these changes have saved residents about $250 billion in public health costs related to breathing polluted air from 2008 to 2016.

The driving force behind coal’s decline is primarily economic. Natural gas is cheaper than the dirty fuel, and new research found that newly constructed wind and solar plants are more cost effective than new coal plants.

The researchers also looked at the challenges faced by economies in former coal-mining areas to learn more about how residents cope with closing plants. The results were decidedly mixed. For example, after one especially dirty plant in Chicago closed down following years of activism, area residents found that the city planned to redevelop the building into a transportation center–posing additional air quality risks. In contrast, an organization in West Virginia is working to train laid off coal-workers in construction, agriculture and solar energy jobs. As the shift to cleaner energy sources continues, the Union of Concerned Scientists call on lawmakers. They write,

“As more coal plants close, the importance of investing in these and other impacted communities will only grow. Policy makers should prioritize economic development and job transition assistance, alongside other investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency.”

On The Radio – Cumulative CO2 levels reach record high


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Carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere when fossil fuels, like coal, are combusted. (Kym Farnik/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | November 20, 2017

This week’s On The Radio segment discusses how carbon dioxide levels soared to record highs in 2016. 

Transcript: Carbon dioxide (CO2) levels rose to a record-high during 2016 according to the World Meteorological Organization.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

The organization measures carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases at 51 sites around the globe. Average accumulated CO2 levels in Earth’s atmosphere reached 403.3 parts per million last year due to human activity and an El Niño weather event, which brought drought to much of the world’s CO2-capturing vegetation. Last year’s increase of CO2 was 50 percent higher than average year-to-year increases over the last ten years.

Scientists say that Earth has not had the same concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere since about three to five million years ago, when temperatures were two to three degrees Celsius warmer and sea levels were several dozen feet higher.

World Meteorological Organization scientists warn that greenhouse gas emissions should be cut drastically and immediately to avoid “dangerous temperature increases” by the end of the century.

For more information, visit Iowa-environmental-focus-dot-org.

From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Betsy Stone.